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Hello, is anybody in there?

“This way, my ladies.” The voice sounded hollow and old. It seemed like they had so far to go, and it was so strange, because Annabelle had seen the house when they got off their horses.

Suddenly, Annabelle thought that the voice led them wrong. Her thoughts brought her mind far away, to the mighty oaks and the dark whispers of the endless forest. Suddenly the sky was an ocean, a rolling, bottomless sea, and the stars were sunken treasures, drenched in the pale moonlight.

The tree tops were suddenly gone, and the only thing she saw was the dark sky; the dark water. She could hear the murmur of the sea and saw how the waves devoured each other. She could hear the echo of the whispers, and how words took shape, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t understand its meaning. There was a storm, she realized; for now the waves devoured the glittering treasures too, and one by one, the stars ceased to shine.

When Annabelle woke up the next morning, the sun didn’t shine like it had done the previous day. Instead rain patted hard against the small windows in such a way that Annabelle was convinced a storm was coming. Suddenly she thought of Katherine, her beloved sister, and her body hurt because of her loss. In her thoughts, she could see the little girl, a helpless sobbing child, and Annabelle’s heart was broken. Quickly she closed her eyes and shook wildly on her head.

“Be strong, Annabelle”, she whispered with her lips pressed together, as she got up from the dirty bed, and started to put on the clothes that lay on top of her trunk. The clothes smelled of home, a scent forever lost, a scent of cotton and honeysuckle. Again she missed home so much her body hurt. She missed her father, her lost brothers, Rebecka and her mother. She also missed Simone, and the beautiful friendship they once had had, which was now lost too. Her heart hurt when she thought of the ones that she loved, for she didn’t know if she would ever see their familiar faces again.

The rain poured down. It was as if the sky had burst open, and rained down a sea of tears, as well as the stars and the sun. The sky was dirty gray, and the trees so dark they appeared black. Everything was so dark and colorless, just like someone had removed all color and life. Then, suddenly, the sky was separated in two by a bright flash, and Annabelle jerked her head back so that she was no longer leaning against the cool window. After the flash followed thunder; a sound so dark and loud Annabelle shuddered of discomfort. She shook her body to get rid of the unpleasant feeling.

“Alice”, she called then, and cursed at herself because her voice sounded so fragile, “where are you?” Another flash lit up the room, creating ghostly silhouettes at the walls.

“I’m here”, Alice’s light voice answered her, “in the kitchen.” Annabelle rose quickly from the cold, hard wooden chair she had sat on, and with determined steps she walked out of the room, away towards the kitchen. The old wooden floor creaked ominously under her feet, while the thunder was so powerful you could have thought that it was the war that was coming, instead of a storm, and that Sherman had taken Richmond.

The kitchen was dark; the only light came from a few candles, and that light was dark and gloomy. Alice was standing by the stove, boiling something, while Mrs. Ericsson, an elderly lady whose hair had adopted into a silvery hue and watery eyes as blue as the sky, sat silently by the table with a bundle of papers in front of her.

It was she who cared for the house they were in, as her husband and three sons were fighting in the war. Quickly Annabelle rushed there, hoping that the woman held a sheet with news of the war. And she was right; Mrs. Ericsson had a newspaper, the Daily Intelligencer, full of gossip about the raging war. Annabelle gasped in relief when she quickly read through the brief news; so far Sherman and his troops had failed to take command of Richmond. It meant that her family was safe, something that made her to calm down a little.

She herself was also safe - yesterday she had been told that she and Alice had arrived to a house in the middle of Northern Virginia’s deepest forest, farther away from Richmond and the civilization than she had thought was possible. They were well hidden from watching eyes, and maybe, just maybe, they could survive the war.

Annabelle was so relieved that a pale smile spread across her lips, like the sun across the sky on a clouded day. But when she looked at the old woman’s face, Mrs. Ericsson’s, it was pale and dull, and her blue eyes were empty of power and life. She looked tired and worn out, as if the news hadn’t been good at all. Just as quickly as it arose, Annabelle’s smile disappeared, and her heart froze in her chest.

“Mrs. Ericsson”, she whispered in a weak voice, because for a second she thought she had misunderstood the news and that it wasn’t as good as she thought. “What is it? Would you like a glass of water, ma’am?” The old lady said nothing, her eyes just kept staring at the opened newspaper. Annabelle felt a dark sickness spread in her body, like a paralyzing poison. What had she missed?

“Please, ma’am, tell me...” The girl’s voice faded away in a whisper when she saw what the old one stared at. There was a small box on the paper’s left corner, a box written in such small print that Annabelle had difficulty seeing what it really was. Then, when she squinted just like an old woman, she saw the headline.

"Lost in battle“, she read. Holding her breath, she glanced over the text without really caring what she read. In the middle, when she came to the letter J, her heart began to beat faster and she felt it getting harder to breathe. “Jackson, James, Johnston”, she murmured softly to herself. Then it was over, and the names of K began. It took a while for her to start breathing again. Johnson was not included. There was a tiny, tiny chance that both her father and brothers were alive. The happiness was too great; it nearly blackened her sight.

But then she came to think of Mrs. Ericsson again. Still, she sat with that empty expression in her eyes and pointed to the text Annabelle had just read. Annabelle frowned; she couldn’t understand why the old one looked like that. Then suddenly, a thought entered her mind that made her cover her mouth with her left hand, as she once again read through paragraph. Just as she had thought; the name Ericsson was written on the paper, with thick, black letters in ink.

“No”, she whispered, and looked carefully at the lady beside her. Suddenly, she felt the old lady’s pain as if it were Johnson that was written on there, instead of Ericsson. Then, Mrs. Ericsson began to speak.

“They are all dead”, she whispered with her blue eyes filled with tears, slowly falling against her pale cheeks. “They are gone, Annabelle, they are all dead. I have lost everyone I love... They took them from me, they took my children. My little boys... They are dead, Annabelle...”

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